A Washington Post article argues that a recently implemented federal school meals policy, the Community Eligibility Provision, is largely responsible for increased participation of low-income children in the school breakfast program.
In reality, the Community Eligibility Provision turns welfare on its head by making it possible for children from middle-class and wealthy families to receive free school meals.
Advocates for the Community Eligibility Provision argue that some low-income children had been missing out on school meals because they didn’t complete the application process. This provision allegedly helps to ensure these otherwise eligible children receive these meals by getting rid of this process.
However, the U. S. Department of Agriculture has no evidence that eligible students aren’t participating in school meal programs, nor does it have data indicating the reasons for nonparticipation.
The article claims:
A record number of low-income children have begun to eat breakfast at school … More than 12 million low-income kids now eat breakfast at school, up almost 50 percent from 10 years ago. … Advocates chalk up that growth, in large part, to the expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision.
This claim about record numbers is a non-story. The number of children participating in the school breakfast program has been increasing steadily since the program began.
Thus, for most years over the past several decades it could be said that “a record number of low-income children” began to eat school breakfast.
But, is the Community Eligibility Provision responsible for the increased participation of low-income children in the school breakfast program over the last 10 years?
The Community Eligibility Provision only began to be implemented on a national basis in the 2014-2015 school year. The 50 percent growth over 10 years can’t be attributed to the Community Eligibility Provision because the provision didn’t even exist for most of those years.
The Washington Post article cites a study that says school breakfast participation increased by 3.7 percent between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, and further cites from the study:
Breakfast participation among low-income (free or reduced-price eligible) children increased by just over 433,000 students, or 3.7 percent, over the previous school year. This year’s growth was consistent with recent progress. Participation grew by 475,000 students, or 4.2 percent, in the 2014-2015 school year; 343,000 students, or 3.2 percent, in the 2013-2014 school year; and 311,000 children, or 3 percent, in the 2012-2013 school year.
The report itself explains that this recent growth is “consistent with recent progress.” In other words, the same percentage increases existed before the Community Eligibility Provision even kicked in.
Moreover, the same data source that The Washington Post article uses (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture) shows that the average annual growth in school breakfast program participation between fiscal year 1996 to 2016 is 4 percent (the median is 3.6 percent).
Therefore, as can be clearly seen from the data The Washington Post article uses, there’s nothing unusual with the post-Community Eligibility Provision annual growth rates.
The article further explains: “[The Community Eligibility Provision] also makes sure more kids get breakfast—9.4 percent more kids compared to control schools, according to the Department of Agriculture.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did do a study prior to the Community Eligibility Provision going nationwide that found more students participated in the school breakfast program.
But the USDA doesn’t claim to know whether these students were low-income students. The growth in participation could very well have come from increased participation of wealthier children.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that more kids ate school breakfast when schools started providing free meals to everyone.
Finally, it’s misleading to say that the Community Eligibility Provision “makes sure more kids get breakfast.” This assumes those students now taking advantage of free breakfasts were not getting breakfast anywhere before.
The increase reflects the number of kids getting school breakfast, not breakfast in general.
In the end, success shouldn’t be measured by increases in the number of children who rely on the government for their meals. After all, we should all want families to supply their children’s needs without government intervention.
Articles like this underscore the lack of a demonstrated need for the Community Eligibility Provision. Congress should eliminate this provision immediately, rather than wait until it reauthorizes a new child nutrition bill.
Getting rid of this provision wouldn’t change the number of low-income children who are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals. It would ensure, however, that free and reduced-priced meals only go to those in need.
After all, that’s the very reason why school meal programs exist in the first place.
Note: The original headline of this piece was altered for accuracy.